Company Culture Is Everywhere
This is the first in a four-part series of articles on understanding and reading company culture. Part one, below, uses a trip to Rome as an example of the subtlety and complexity of culture. In future articles I’ll share four cues you can use to read a culture, different perspectives you must take to understand a culture and finally explain how culture spreads and why it breaks down as a company grows.
Search online for the latest articles on company culture and you’ll find multiple articles are published every single day. Businesses, and the business media, have realized that:
culture makes a big difference between companies that thrive and those that falter.
Reading these articles – as I have – you’d think that a company culture is some, or all, of these things:
- Having company values
- Something different than company values
- Treating your people well
- Employees knowing the mission of your company
- Professional development and job flexibility
- Your office space and your perks
Where most of these articles fall down is in blurring the line between defining what company culture is and listing the artefacts of a particular or desired company culture. You can have both values and a company culture. You can have values but no company culture, or one that’s different to the values. You can have great perks and office space and no culture. Or no office space and a great culture.
Off To Rome
A culture is something experiential. It can’t easily be written down and it isn’t defined by the existence of artefacts. For example, if you wanted to understand the culture of Rome, there are lots of things you could do :
- Read some articles on the Internet, for example Rome’s Wikipedia page
- Watch a TV show or video about Rome, for example Rome in a nutshell
- Talk to someone from Rome, for example my friend Alessio
After doing this you might have learned some things about Rome. You would probably know some facts about Rome, what the major tourist sites are and perhaps some of the customs of Rome.
If you talked to Alessio, you might also learn some colorful Italian swear words. You’d have some knowledge about Rome, and maybe an impression of the culture.
The next logical step would be to go to Rome. On the first day, everything would seem very alien and strange. After a week you might still feel like an outsider, but at least an outsider who knows their way around and a few do’s and don’ts. After a year it might start to feel like home. At every step on this journey your understanding of the culture gets deeper and deeper.
The Invisible Hand
You continue to stay in Rome. As time passes, you become more and more used to the experience of being in Rome. This is the culture of Rome. Without realizing it, your perspective, your actions, your language and your values have been slowly warped by the culture you’ve been operating within.
The ability to subtly influence and change behavior is what makes “culture” seem so alluring to businesses. It’s an invisible hand that can guide employee action and behavior. For example guiding employees to be more compliant to instructions, or biased towards action or more curious leading to more innovation.
Many articles try to draw a distinction between good and bad company cultures, but there’s no such thing. There is company culture and there are its effects: whether it supports and drives outcomes for the business.
Whether a culture appears good or bad depends on your perspective. My dysfunction is your perfect environment.
A great example of this is from my time at Microsoft. Like most people, my first exposure to Microsoft, before I ever worked there, was through their products: Windows 3.1, Office & Internet Explorer. I liked them, and I thought they were cool. Early in my career, I had the opportunity to visit Microsoft and start to meet people who worked there. They seemed smart and focused. They seemed like my kind of people. I hoped that someday I’d get to work there.
Eventually, an opportunity arose and off I went to Microsoft. I got to work with the smart and driven people I’d seen from the outside. I still liked them, but as I became more attuned to the culture I learned it wasn’t all about being smart, driven and making great products. There were interpersonal and inter-team politics that got in the way of doing the right thing for customers. Over time, this started to wear on me and I left.
Following our Rome analogy, I went from eating pizza, to taking a few vacations in Rome, to moving there and finally deciding I didn’t like pizza.
Your Culture As It Is
Culture is difficult to describe and pin down, which is what makes it difficult to change. Culture is the result of many, many small actions, repeated over a period of time, that become a broad set of norms for behavior. Changing one or two things isn’t enough to move a culture, it takes consistent influence over months and years. Think about it like this: how would you approach changing the culture of Rome so that it was more like Milwaukee?
There are no shortcuts to changing culture. This is where many culture change initiatives flounder. You probably know apocryphal examples like buying a table-tennis table, pinning up a set of values on the wall or importing new people (younger, more experienced or from a different type of company). These measures probably won’t change the overall experience of your company.
Your culture will absorb them (or ignore them) and survive. Your culture changes them, not the other way around.
Changing a culture needs you to see your culture as it really is. This can be painful, especially for senior leaders who must accept that the culture they are trying to change was created by them. Many business leaders carry an impression of how things used to be in their business; this impression clouds their view of what the culture currently is. You’ll often hear entrepreneurs wishing that their company was “agile, like it used to be”. The company and the culture has moved on and they need to as well.
Parts two and three of our four part series will give a framework for reading your culture: we’ll cover the cues you need to keep track of, and then the different viewpoints you need to take in order to see your culture as it is. The final article will explain how culture grows and how it breaks down.
Read Part 2 : Language Reveals Company Culture